Tuesday 27 February 2018

The Personal is Political and the Political is Personal | Mother or Not, Sister or What?

I am currently working on an article for an academic journal focusing on my own and others’ experience of being a nonmother with reference to both biological families and political parties. In it my argument is that childlessness is a personal, a public and a political issue. 

I am a sociologist and (following eight years working as a nursery nurse) my early academic career - as undergraduate and postgraduate student - gave me the opportunity to engage in intellectual reflection on my own experience of miscarriage (undergraduate final year dissertation) and subsequent infertility and involuntary childlessness (PhD).  From my own experiences I felt that pregnancy loss and nonmotherhood were both misunderstood and under-researched and during my own projects I came across many others who felt the same.  I met and talked or corresponded with women (and men) who had had experiences more distressing than mine; individuals whose reproductive ‘failures’ dominated their lives completely. I also came across others for whom reproductive loss and non-parenthood was less significant or something that they felt they had ‘dealt with’ and ‘left behind’. * 

A couple of weeks ago I read an article by fellow sociologist Susie Scott who, through a focus on ‘non-identity’, ‘non-participation’ and ‘non-presence’, presents the case for a ‘sociology of nothing’. This is relevant to my argument here in that women (and men) without children are often defined negatively by others – as pitiable, as desperate, as selfish, as unfulfilled and more - (e.g. Letherby, G. (2002) ‘Childless and Bereft?: stereotypes and realities in relation to ‘voluntary’ and ‘involuntary childlessness and womanhood’ Sociological Inquiry 72(1): 7-20) even though the reality is more often than not much more complicated and complex. Furthermore, despite the non-identities of non (biological) motherhood ‘being negatively defined by lack or absence, they … [may be] constructed as meaningful’ by nonmothers themselves (Scott, S. (2018) ‘A Sociology of Nothing: understanding the unmarked’ Sociology 52(1): 3-19 pp.4).

Now self-defining as more (biologically) voluntarily childless than involuntarily childless I credit this personal shift in part to the opportunities my academic endeavours have given me for detailed reflection on my own experience and those of similar others. An opportunity, a privilege, that most people do not have. My friendships with younger people including the children and grandchildren of others is significant too as is my work - as teacher, supervisor, and mentor - in that all these relationships give me much opportunity for satisfaction and fulfilment.  Of course I can not know how my own life would have turned out if I had carried my baby successfully to term or if I had conceived and given birth to other children. I may have returned to education and study I may have not. I do know that this (and other) losses (see for example http://www.arwenack.co.uk/2017/07/bereavement-and-belongings-losses-and.html; http://www.arwenack.co.uk/2017/07/bereavement-and-belongings-losses-and_8.html; http://www.arwenack.co.uk/2017/07/bereavement-and-belongings-losses-and_72.html) have significantly influenced by intellectual and personal development, opportunities and life experience.

My long-term interest in, and support for, the politics of the Left was further stimulated in the summer of 2016 (following the EU Referendum and the coup again the Labour Party Leader, Jeremy Corbyn). Inevitably my concern with and reflection on Party politics is influenced by my feminist sociological interest in the personal as political and my first ‘political opinion piece’ written for this Blog (there have been quite a few since) focused on gender stereotypes and includes:

A short internet search and I found another, equally ludicrous article [the first was about Corbyn's so called ‘left-wing beard’], describing Corbyn as a ‘joyless vegetarian’ in need of a few good steaks. And just this week yet another implying that it was inappropriate of him to attend his allotment association annual general meeting given the current situation within the PLP. The leader of the opposition, the article states, likes to make ‘jam for friends and family’ with some of the produce he grows. So, this is where he’s going wrong:  doesn’t he know that it’s women who are closer to nature, women who nurture and care, because, and only because, they give birth? . . . . Enter Andrea Leadsom, Conservative leadership candidate, who feels that, as a mother, she has a ‘real stake in the future’ and thus an advantage over her childless and obviously ‘really sad’ opponent Theresa May.

Although Leadsom’s comments about her rival’s reproductive state ended her ambitions this did not stop some of the media running pieces on childless politicians with a focus only on women which were rightly criticised by others (e.g. http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/nicola-sturgeon-miscarriage-childless-theresa-may-explain-it-to-anyone-a7227106.html). Despite complexity of experience, cultural depictions of women who do not mother children or who mother children within relationships or in situations viewed by some as different, inappropriate and/or even as ‘unreal’ (for example social motherhood of various kinds), have long drawn on oversimplified caricatures. Alongside this mothers, nonmothers and other-mothers have always been labelled, by the media, as well as through political and medical discourses as deserving or undeserving. With this in mind I have been struck recently by a continuation of these discourses and an, arguably, more sinister development with non and other mothers being represented as a danger to themselves and to others. I have written more about this, and other issues related to reproductive rights, experiences and identities here. 

Four years ago I stepped down from a full-time academic position (60+ hours a week being usual) to work freelance and I am now able to spend more time in voluntary activities and political activism. I have become more active in canvassing, protesting on the street and online and in political writing (including letters to newspapers, publishing on this blog and contributing to the social media presence of my CLP). I have written about a number of issues including school summer holiday hunger, the Grenfell Tower tragedy, homelessness, health, education and more. I do appreciate that such involvement and activity might be more difficult, not least in terms of organisation as well as time, for friends with children and grandchildren. And yet, as I have written previously (with Karen Ramsay) women without childcare responsibilities are often viewed as an 'institutional resource' in the academy (and elsewhere) as they are thought to be 'natural' carers with more time available to support students and colleagues (Ramsay, K. and Letherby, G. (2006) ‘The Experience of Academic Non-Mothers in the Gendered University’, Gender, Work and Organization 13(1): 25-44). Again a deterministic, simplistic explanation which takes no account of the other responsibilities, including caring responsibilities, that women might have. Nor does it acknowledge that men care too (Letherby, Gayle Marchbank, Jen Ramsay, Karen Shiels, John (2005) ‘Mothers and “Others” Providing Care Within and Outside of the Academy’ in Hile Bassett R Parenting and Professing: Balancing Family Work with an Academic Career Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press).

The (small amount) of political work I do is motivated by my strong desire for a better world for all, now and in the future. Many of my concerns then are for all ‘our’ children, their life chances and choices. With all this in mind I was disappointed (and hurt) for my difference, my otherness to be highlighted yet again when I read of the launch of Mums4Corbyn at The World Transformed event at the 2018 Labour Party Conference. From what I could see of planned events many of the issues considered were those that affect all women, mother or not, and shared concerns were part of my pitch for a piece for the New Socialist who published a series of articles focusing on the contemporary politics of motherhood in support of the initiative. Thus:

My concern is with the political significance of all women whether mothers, nonmothers or other-mothers (women whose mother status is considered lesser, even ‘unreal’). This is important because the ideologies and expectations of ideal motherhood affect all women, in our private and our public lives and the image of the ideal woman – which is arguably synonymous with the image of the ideal mother – also affects us all, whether mother, other-mother or nonmother. Feminism can be criticized for focusing on motherhood at the expense of a consideration of sisterhood. Yet any (political) understanding of motherhood and mothering needs to embrace the experience of nonmothers and other-mothers. It is only through such holistic reflection on our similarities and our differences that as sisters together we can challenge that which divides us and holds us back and celebrate our ‘collective and communal relations’ which will enable to us work together for ‘transformative change’.

I appreciate, of course, the particular challenges and inequalities that mothers face
http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/jeremy-corbyn-parenting-mothers-mums4corbyn-children-paternity-leave-maternity-a7895941.html but I maintain that we can more effectively work on this together as, in with reference to this issue, as in many others, we do indeed have far more in common with each other than things that divide us’ (Jo Cox MP).

Sadly, the editors felt that my piece did not ‘quite match’ their intended agenda. Which in turn felt, to me, like a further denial of the relevance of the very many of us who have an identity and experiences often defined by society as lesser. 

I wrote (a variation of some of what I have written above) to Mums4Corbyn http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk/2017/09/an-open-letter-to-mums4corbyn-some.html and did receive a generous reply but I remained, and remain frustrated by the lack of attention to difference in the New Socialist pieces. I appreciate that reducing the introductory article in the series to one sentence is problematic. Yet, the opening one of a section entitled ‘Why Mothers?’: The ‘labourist’ tendency in the Labour Party has often excluded women and struggles around reproduction, indeed it could be argued that it is constituted, to an extent, by precisely this exclusion.’ highlights, I believe, the importance of such debate and discussion to those who are not or do not mother as well as those who are and do. https://newsocialist.org.uk/the-politics-of-contemporary-motherhood-and-mums4corbyn/ 

I admit that this time around the ‘meaningful identity’ that I have carefully built for myself felt threatened. I wrote a poem about some aspects of my experience and about these feelings:

Being Other

Expectation (on multiple levels), preparation, anticipation, expectation (joyful this time) once more.

Loss, pain (lots of pain, the physical far outweighed by the emotional), feelings of failure and self-loathing.


More failure.

Gradually, slowly, with lots of loving support, if not resolution as least an acceptance.

And there are compensations both in relationships and through other opportunities to find enrichment, fulfilment, value. For this I am grateful.


Yet, there remains a sense of difference, compounded at times by exclusion.

Still feeling other and sometimes being othered.

Being also, at least at some level, an expert in my own experience, and through much study and research the experience of similar others, does not always protect me from distress.

So what of the latest exclusion, that which forces me to relive my loss (yet again), and its' social, emotional and material aftermath, more than thirty years on from the life-changing night when all this started?

This time a denial not only of our contribution and our value but also a rejection of my knowledge and expertise.

I appreciate then that my pride is hurt on top of all the rest. 


I will recover, I always do.

But for the moment I’m left reflecting on the fragility of it all.

Contentment, self-worth, security in one’s achievements and meaningfulness, perhaps even some small legacy.

In a heartbeat all threatened.

Walking on ice.

Careful steps now …  

A recent interview for House Magazine with the Labour MP Sarah Champion is available online. The article includes: 

… after six years fighting CSE [Child Sexual Exploitation] from the Opposition benches, the Labour MP is concerned that for the current Prime Minister the issue has “dropped off the radar”.
When Champion met David Cameron she was impressed with his dedication to the cause following a visit to her constituency to see up close the scars the abuse had left on the community. But she does not believe that Theresa May shares his commitment.
“I do not feel with this government that it is a priority at all,” she says.
“David Cameron got it and I think he got it because I went to him as a dad rather than going to him as a politician. And I got him to meet some of the survivors of Rotherham and one of the mums whose child went through it. So, we engaged with him on that level, which is why he then crusaded as a dad, wanting it for other people’s children.
“Theresa May was great when she was Home Secretary and then as soon as she shifted to PM it’s dropped off the radar. It’s clearly not a priority for them.” 
Following this Champion responded to criticisms that she is ‘doing a Leadsom’ – i.e. suggesting that May is not serious about CSE because she is not a mother/parent – thus:

@SarahChampionMP: For the record, I have not - and would not - say anything about Theresa May’s ability as a politician based on where (sic) or not she is a mother. Absolute rubbish and lies.

I accept this and Ms Champion's additional comment: 'I judge people on their ability not their womb!'. But, if the report of the interview is correct (as Champion tweeted a copy herself, I assume it is) given the continued cultural and political discourse that positions nonmothers/(parents) as other, as lesser, as absent, as invisible (Letherby 1994, 2002, Scott 2018) it is perhaps not surprising that some people find her words easy to manipulate. I agree with Champion that 'abuse is always about power' and greatly appreciate her DARE2CARE National Action Plan https://www.dare2care.org.uk/. I agree also that the issue of child sexual exploitation is not being given the attention it deserves by the Prime Minister. Indeed, despite the rhetoric that the Government is ‘BUILDING A COUNTRY THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE’:

-       the voting records  (see https://www.theyworkforyou.com/mps/) of many Conservative politicians,

-       their political priorities and policies in many areas,

-       and, in some instances, their less than respectful behaviour towards others, including other politicians and the general public. (I’m thinking here of more, much more, than Ben Bradley MPs recent necessary apology to Jeremy Corbyn MP https://twitter.com/bbradleymp/status/967526680188375040 ).

strongly suggests that there is much that the Prime Minister and her colleagues are not taking seriously enough.

In 1994 I wrote:

. . .all women live their lives against a background of personal and cultural assumptions that all women are or want to be mothers and that for women motherhood is proof of adulthood and a natural consequence of marriage or a permanent relationship with a man. A great deal of social and psychological research has focused on women and the role of children in their lives and is thus complicit in reproducing societal assumptions about women deriving their identity from relationships in domestic situations and particularly from motherhood within the family. . . (Letherby, G. 1994 ‘Mother or Not, Mother or What?: problems of definition and identity’ Women’s Studies International Forum 17(5): 525-532)

Then in 1999:  

For many people ‘childless’ implies a person with something missing from her (sic) life. Mothers are perceived as proper ‘women’, while women without children are perceived as ‘improper’ and treated as ‘other’. They are also treated as childlike rather than truly adult. Thus, women who have no children are considered to have no responsibilities and thus to be like children themselves. (Letherby G and Williams C (1999) ‘Non-motherhood: ambivalent autobiographiesFeminist Studies 25(3): 7-19)

And in 2016:

To suggest that a woman, or a man, who does not have any (biological) children has no understanding of or interest in the next generation(s) is ridiculous, to imply that they are less concerned about local and global in/equality and in/justice offensive. http://arwenackcerebrals.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/all-hail-stereotype-left-wing-beards.html

I am interested in, and intend to write more about, both the 'politics of hope' (e.g. https://overland.org.au/2017/10/corbyn-and-the-politics-of-democratic-hope/) and the 'politics of belonging'  (e.g.: Nira Yuval-Davis (2011) The Politics of Belonging: Intersectional Contestations London: Sage; George Monbiot (2017) Out of the Wreckage: a new politics for an age of crisis London: Verso (for a  review of this see Graham Scambler’s Blog 
http://www.grahamscambler.com/politics-and-narratives/)) not least because of the links than can be made to the focus on the power of sisterhood within feminism and to my own particular academic and personal interest in non/motherhood. In the month in which we celebrate some women getting the vote through a struggle that involved women working ‘Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend’ (March of the Women, composed by Ethel Smyth in 1910, to words by Cicely Hamilton) it remains (to me at least) ironic that the differences, rather than the similarities, between mothers and others still often dominates political, and other, agendas. My plea is that those on the Left, at least, engage with the concerns I raise here  – I’m available for a debate.

* For information I have also researched issues surrounding the experience of pregnancy and motherhood/parenthood for a variety of different groups including young mothers and mothers with long-term health conditions.

To follow soon:

The Personal is Political and the Political is Personal (2) | ‘Shoulder to shoulder and friend to friend’ (March of the Women, composed by Ethel Smyth in 1910, to words by Cicely Hamilton)


  1. As a woman who chose not to have children (I don't like to label myself with the negative tags of non-mother or childless) much here resonates with me. There is that sense that somehow you are widely perceived as not quite grown up, not quite responsible, not quite a 'real' woman. As my situation was a choice, and not one I have ever regretted, this doesn't overly bother me, but I can imagine how much more hurtful it must be to those who did not choose. Amusingly, I was sat at a table in a pub last year, with four women, and a male friend arrived with another man, whom none of us knew. He had been trying to convince his friend that he must have children, and the friend looked around the table and said he realised he was now going to be lectured by all these women on the virtues of parenthood. Turns out only one woman there had children, and us non-parents were in the majority. His surprise and relief were palpable. Interesting, even though we composed the majority, none of us felt inclined to lecture the minority on why she should not have had children. It's a mutual respect thing.

    1. Thanks for this. Yes, I agree mutual respect and an attempt to understand, as well as value, each other's experience. Interestingly, I don't now think of nonmother/childless as negative although I know many do. For me nonmother is merely descriptive BUT childless is actually for most not that accurate as lots of people who do not parent have children in their lives in other ways - at work and through family and friends. Thanks again for taking the time to comment and for sharing your experience. Gayle